With all the Sikh restaurants, Ecuadorian lunch counters, and Indo-Caribbean vegetable stands beckoning from Richmond Hill, I find myself whizzing up and down Lefferts Boulevard a lot lately. Every trip passes the mammoth stone grotto of Il Palazzo di Villa Russo, an ancient Italian catering hall. On the day I counted 16 stone cherubim on one facade alone, I resolved to invent some sort of occasion to get inside. A fake wake? An artificial circumcision, with a beard in a black frock coat impersonating the mohel? Or a "business meeting" complete with charts and handouts?
While I was deliberating, a friend noticed that the place had begun opening Thursday nights to accommodate curious independent diners. Inside a separate entrance on 101st Avenue, a handful of tables had been set in a hallway with marble floors, bronze Roman statues missing limbs, and walls stuccoed so dramatically that running into them could cause deep wounds. Save for a boisterous birthday party, we appeared to be the only diners.
It turned out that only one meal was offered, a $24.95 bonanza comprising five courses, including beverage, dessert, and coffee. The bread was promising, a dense round Pugliese loaf planted in a king's ransom of glimmering butter packets. Our waitress's footfalls echoed in the empty chamber as she ferried in antipasti. The best featured cantaloupe, a single ripe strawberry, decent prosciutto sliced too thick, and a bocconcino of amazing freshness resting in a pool of creamy whey. The next best was an overflowing charger of fried calamari marred by a listless tomato dip. Next up was a choice of three tubular pastas with tomato sauces. Onerigatoni in a pink, cheesy vodka saucewas spectacular, while anotherziti marinaraprovoked a yawn.
Refreshingly, a salad course arrived next, mixed or tri-colore, both nicely dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. By the time we'd buffed our empty bowls with bread, we were ready to burst. Ominously, the main course carried the warning "all served with vegetables and potatoes." Among five choices, the swordfish arreganata (sic) heaped with toasted bread crumbs was a very tasty plate of fish. The soupy eggplant rollatini was mildly disappointing, while the pickled-pepper-heaped pork chop, cooked to a cinder, was nearly inediblethough the accompanying Sicilian potato fritter and steamed vegetables would have made a full course in themselves. For dessert, the twin cannolis suffered from a watery ricotta filling; fresh fruit and chocolate gelato are better choices.
Thursday night at Villa Russo is a gothic experience and a good deal, despite uneven food. Hey, it's a banquet hallwhat did you expect?
Though the service is still green, and the tables too closely packed for a place that boasts three levels and broad vistas, the food at FIAMMA OSTERIA (206 Spring Street, 653-0100) more or less rules. I was knocked out by the pasta course of garganelli sauced with prosciutto, fresh peas, cream, and truffle essenceexpensive at $22, but rich enough to be subdivided. The secondi were up and down, including a perfect grilled Mediterranean fish called orata that reeked pleasantly of rosemary, and little cylinders of lamb wrapped in charred basil leavesgreat idea, bland meat in minuscule portions.
One of the chief summer pleasures of Queens lies in discovering and investigating antiquarian ice-cream parlors. Founded in 1909, EDDIE'S SWEET SHOP (105-29 Metropolitan Avenue, Forest Hills, Queens, 718-520-8514) seems untouched by modernity. The hardwood stools at the long counter were not designed to accommodate the adult buttkids won't mind. In several flavors, the Cokes are concocted from syrup and soda, the 22 flavors of ice cream are made on the premises, and the soda jerk is well versed in the arcana of freezes, floats, sundaes, and malts. Very highly recommended.
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